Re: metaphors, science, religion

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Mon Mar 18 2002 - 15:57:39 GMT

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    Subject: Re: metaphors, science, religion
    Date: Mon, 18 Mar 2002 07:57:39 -0800
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    >Subject: metaphors, science, religion
    >Date: Sun, 17 Mar 2002 16:09:14 -0500
    >Grant writes: "For subjects like mysticism or religion, we have to resort
    >metaphor in an attempt to explain ideas that are too abstract to be
    >understood through language."
    >When you say that that metaphor is used in an attempt to explain ideas that
    >are too abstract for language, your statement comes across as odd as a
    >minimum and potentially incoherent because metaphor is intrinsic to
    >language. Further, somewhere along the way metonymy got lost.


    What I meant when I said "ideas too abstract for language" I was talking
    about ideas for which the language does not currently have any words. Since
    the words don't already exist, we borrow them from other areas of our
    culture and they become metaphors. The other problem with using language to
    talk about abstract ideas is it's impossible to make clear what the words
    refer to. Thus language becomes an inadequate attempt to say the unsayable.
      As Lao Tze said, the Tao that can be explained is not the Tao.

    A third problem with language in the explication of scinece is time. When a
    new concept arises and there is no established vocabulary with which to talk
    about it, people will need time and experimentation to come up with words
    they can agree mean the same thing to both reader and writer. Dictionaries
    are a good tool to use in the solution of that problem, but it takes years
    for a word to be included in a dictionary.

    Take the word "string" for example. Why was that word chosen and what,
    exactly, does it refer to? You can't see a quantum string or even prove
    that one exists. It takes a small book to describe the referent but even
    then who can say it's been adequately explained?

    Or look at the truble we have pinning down the meaning of "meme." Is the
    language we are using adequate to explain what the word "meme" refers to?
    It seems simple enough to me, but the problem is getting others to agree
    that my concept of the word's meaning is the same as that of the other
    people who are using it. Or getting me to agree with their idea. Until we
    can agree on that, the word will always mean different things to different
    people and can't be used in the precise way that scientific terms need to be

    I like to use Chinese and Japanese as an example of the problems of using
    language to explain things. But this is becoming too complex and will take
    up too much space to explain in a simple email. My point, though, is that
    the Chinese and the Japanese had to borrow English words to talk about ideas
    that didn't exist in their own language until they came into contact with
    us. The chinese writing system makes this very difficult, while Japanese
    has a tool called kana that allows them to import the sound. So when the
    Chinese borrowed the name "America" to refer to the U.S., they called it
    "Mei Guo" and used two ideographs that mean "pretty country." In the
    Taiwanese dialect, it became "mi guo" which means "rice country." The
    Japanese were able to use syllabic symbols that carried the sounds "A mei ri
    ka." but had no conflicting meaning in Japanese.

    As you can see the Chinese chose words which had similar sounds but which
    carried meanings that were not indicative of what they referred to.
    Multiply this by all the new words that science and medicine have produced,
    and you can see why the students in China use English text books for the
    study of these subjects. Their own language gets in the way of
    understanding the concepts.



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